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Jun 8, 2017 | 09:15 GMT

Sudan's Struggle to Win U.S. Approval

Sudan’s Long Path to Normalization With the United States
(EBRAHIM HAMID/AFP/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights

  • In July, the White House will decide whether to relieve several sanctions on Sudan based on an executive order signed by former U.S. President Barack Obama.
  • Sanctions relief would provide incentive for Sudan to continue working to improve human rights issues and solve internal conflicts.
  • Until Sudanese President Omar al Bashir, charged with war crimes by the International Criminal Court, leaves power, the lifting of all sanctions will remain a distant prospect.

Sudan has made some major adjustments to its diplomatic posture over the past year and a half. In that time, the nation abandoned its long-standing relationship with Iran and instead began working closely with Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries. This policy shift has earned Sudan both financial gain and a certain amount of diplomatic credit in the Western world. But the real prize for the country would be a normalization of relations with the United States, and there are signs that Sudan may be able to make progress toward that end.

Waiting For a Review

As one of his last acts in office, former U.S. President Barack Obama signed an executive order in January raising the possibility that Washington could lift a limited number of the trade and investment sanctions on Sudan that have been in place for years. The order required that, after a six-month review period, the U.S. government, now led by President Donald Trump, would evaluate Sudan's progress in improving its human rights record.

The results of the review could represent Sudan's greatest step to date in improving its historically fraught relationship with the United States. The stakes are high, as the nation would benefit massively from the trade, military, aid and investment opportunities that come with the lifting of U.S. sanctions. And even though a positive assessment would put Sudan only a few steps onto a very long path toward normalization, a negative decision could very well erase that path completely.

Before June is out, various U.S. agencies and departments will be required to brief Trump on the progress Sudan has made since Obama signed the order. In addition to improving its human rights record, Sudan was also expected to cease hostilities in the nation's many internal conflicts, including Darfur in the west and Kordofan and Blue Nile in the south. If the overall assessment of Sudan's progress is considered satisfactory, and the Trump administration decides to act on Obama's executive order, the United States will relieve some trade and investment sanctions.

But that would still leave Sudan far from a true normalization with the United States. The East African country remains on Washington's list of state sponsors of terrorism, where it has been for 20 years under Sudanese President Omar al Bashir, and Obama's order suggested no change in that status. Additionally, many sanctions, including ones limiting arms exports and potential U.S. aid as well as those specific to the Darfur conflict, would remain.

Breaking Ties With Iran

In the eyes of the United States, Sudan's slate is still far from clear. However, it has made strides to improve its standing with Washington, most notably by breaking off its relationship with Iran in favor of U.S. ally Saudi Arabia.

Sudan was once a loyal Iranian partner. The 1989 coup that brought to power al Bashir — a leader who later earned warrants from the International Criminal Court for charges of crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide — severely damaged Sudan's relationship with the United States. It was natural that Iran, whose 1979 Islamic Revolution put the country in a similarly reviled position, would form a friendship with Sudan. After all, Sudan's geographic position near several Iranian proxies — Gaza, Yemen, Eritrea and Somalia — made it an ideal transit point for smuggling. In exchange for Sudan’s cooperation, Iran provided it with financial and military support, not to mention oil.

Before the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal, both pariah states assisted each other with arms smuggling and supporting terrorist groups. In the early 1990s, before the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings made Osama bin Laden the most wanted man in the United States, Sudan hosted the terrorist leader. At the time, bin Laden was believed to be using his business activities in Sudan as a front for establishing the foundations of al Qaeda, particularly its East Africa network, which at one point was one of its most prominent branches.

But after the bombings, Sudan began cooperating with the United States in its counterterrorism efforts, particularly through intelligence sharing. Following the 9/11 attacks, Sudan even conducted its own internal crackdown on radical elements, prompting hard-liners in the country to accuse the government of appeasing the United States.

Then in 2011, following decades of civil war, South Sudan split from Sudan to become its own independent nation, taking many of the nation's oil reserves with it and leaving Sudan in dire financial straits. Sudan's economy struggled, and Saudi Arabia, which had long been making overtures toward Khartoum, stepped in to take advantage. Riyadh poured investment into Sudan, promising more in exchange for military support in its conflict in Yemen. Entering into the Saudi sphere of influence also allowed Sudan to take a step toward a better relationship with the West. By 2016, Sudan had officially severed ties with Iran, and its substantial army had joined the Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen.

The United States itself is still considering whether it will play a larger role in the Yemen conflict, though it currently supports Saudi air operations with tanker aircraft and planning aid. Sudanese forces, however, have already been visibly present on the battlefield, securing critical locations in and near the port city of Aden and joining the front lines of multiple offensives against the Houthis throughout the country. That represents quite a shift for the nation that at one point had helped Iran support the same rebels. Saudi Arabia's successful attempt to break Sudan's links to Iran turned the tables in the conflict, cutting crucial support for the Houthis while adding capacity to Saudi Arabia's fight.

Confronting Conflict Internally

Unfortunately for Sudan, the case for sanctions relief from the United States does not depend entirely on its newfound position in the international community. Though Obama's executive order does take into consideration Sudan's counterterrorism track record, it focuses primarily on Khartoum's ability to make progress on other issues — specifically, ceasing hostilities in Sudan's internal conflicts and improving its human rights record. These historically have not been strong areas for Sudan. Several rebel groups have long been fighting al Bashir's government, and under him, Sudan has been accused of engaging in a number of human rights violations, especially against the people of Darfur.

Recently, though, with his nation needing the international trade relationships that sanction relief could allow, al Bashir has taken pragmatic steps to court approval from the United States. These include enacting a series of unilateral cease-fires in internal Sudanese conflicts to offer the space necessary for mediation. There have been setbacks, though: Most opposition groups and armed rebels alike have continued to boycott the peace process, saying that current peace offers are not sustainable. So while Khartoum may be able to show positive intentions, it has not been able to make significant progress.

The government has also promised opposition parties that the national dialogue the country has seen for several years now would lead to a new unity government. So far, this has not been the case, and opposition leaders are not hopeful. But in some instances, the government has demonstrated a willingness to cooperate and even has offered limited practical compromises with opposition groups. For example, opposition leader Sadiq al-Mahdi, who remained in self-imposed exile even after the government dropped treason charges against him, returned to Sudan in January in a sign of potential rapprochement between the government and opposition groups. However, these limited achievements may not be enough for the United States to drop sanctions.

The Barriers Ahead

There is no clear answer to the question of what Washington will decide. Despite its international policy advancements, Sudan may not objectively have done enough over the past six months to improve human rights or resolve conflicts to warrant U.S. approval. However, the United States may also consider the potential consequences of rejecting sanctions relief, an action that could signal to Sudan that it is futile to try to continue making progress. Conversely, a positive assessment and sanctions reductions may well provide necessary encouragement for Khartoum.

Ultimately, a real normalization of relations with the United States will continue to be out of reach for Sudan as long as al Bashir remains in power. The International Criminal Court warrants are a significant barrier to any real reconciliation, a situation illustrated recently when the United States allegedly refused to let al Bashir attend a U.S.-Arab summit in Saudi Arabia. It's clear that even if the United States is interested in bringing Sudan back in from the cold, it's not interested in Sudan bringing al Bashir with it.

A post-al Bashir era is coming, though. The leader announced that he would step down in 2020. It is critical for Sudan that the transition to a new leader be a stable one, and that will require a major national dialogue. Sudan has not redeemed itself in Washington's eyes, but limited sanctions relief would go a long way toward fostering the changes needed for the country to one day enjoy normalized relations with the United States.

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